The Frank Warnock story
Frank Warnock founded Shore Sails 63 years ago and over the next 42 years grew the one-man band into the country’s largest independently-owned sailmaker. Shore Sails is no more, but the spritely 84-year-old can still be found at his sailmaking bench. Here’s his story.
Born in 1934 in Auckland, Warnock never had much time for formal schooling.
“I hated school from the day I started until the day I left. It was wartime and all the good teachers were overseas. The teachers we had weren’t any good and beat us regularly.”
Warnock wanted to be boatbuilder but couldn’t get an apprenticeship. But sailmaker Sandy Harold of Sail Specialities, whom Warnock had commissioned to build a new mainsail for his P Class, suggested he approach Leo Bouzaid.
Bouzaid said yes, and his company, Sails and Covers (colloquially known as Sacks and Bags), was then one of only three sailmakers in Auckland. The others were Boyd & Mcmaster and Sail Specialities. Besides sails, Sails and Covers also made covers and, later on, tents.
In those days the shape of a sail wasn’t considered as important as the quality of the hand finishing, so handwork featured highly during Warnock’s 10,000-hour/five-year apprenticeship. Incidentally, English sailmaker Ratsey & Lapthorn was then considered the best hand-finisher in the world and its sails were considered the bee’s knees.
Apprenticeship complete, Warnock left Sails and Covers in 1955 and, in best Kiwi tradition, founded his own sailmaking business a few months later. With a borrowed £150, he set up North Shore Sails and Canvas in a tin shed in Takapuna.
As the only sailmaker on the North Shore, he soon had a full order book. He eventually took on an ex-motor trimmer to make the covers, leaving him free to build sails.
Eight years later he moved his business into a 230m3 room at the Takapuna Boating Club in Bayswater – previously used for dancing and roller-skating. With a wooden floor it was a vast improvement on the tin shed’s concrete floor, and its better location boosted business. Warnock renamed his business Shore Sails.
He eventually rented both floors of the Takapuna Boating Club premises and, over the next two decades expanded from one staff member to 25, the largest sailmaker in New Zealand of the period.
“Yachts were being launched almost daily and the work just poured in – it was boom times.”
Financial success enabled Warnock to buy his first keeler. In 1959 he ordered the hull and decks of an 8.5m Val Class yacht from Salthouse Bros, which became La Mouette. Finishing La Mouette off at home, he raced her successfully for 10 years.
At the time the local caravan building industry was also booming and, beside marine covers, Shore Sails became one of the largest suppliers of caravan awnings.
But a major limitation to doing business in those days was the restrictive import licensing regulations. Warnock had to apply for an import licence for his sailcloth, a difficult process and each licence only lasted 12 months.
He imported sailcloth from lofts in Scotland, France, Germany, Japan and the USA and, with a three-month lead-time between ordering and delivery, some crystal ball gazing was required.
By the late 1960s customers were becoming considerably more interested in sail shapes. Hood’s 450mm wide sailcloth was highly-regarded and gave it a market edge. Conscious of potentially losing business to Hood, Warnock arranged with a German sailcloth supplier to produce 450mm-wide panels which were stamped Shore Cloth.
In 1972, he sold La Mouette and commissioned Snow Waters to built him a 11.8m John Lidgard design, which became Offshore. After winning the Best-finished Yacht at the 1974 Auckland Boat Show, Offshore was launched that same year.
Warnock still owns her and has sailed over 25,000 offshore miles in her, including races to Noumea, Fiji and Round North Island. He’s also successfully raced Offshore locally, keeping the same racing crew for 18 years – no small feat.
During those boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, he opened retail stores at Tauranga, Westhaven and Gulf Harbour
Yachts were being launched almost daily and the work just poured in – it was boom times.
Marinas. These stores would make the covers on site, while generating orders for new sails and sail repairs at the main loft.
But like everyone in the marine business, the Muldoon boat and caravan sales tax of 1979 hit Warnock hard and within a week of the tax’s imposition he’d lost all forward orders for yacht sails and caravan awnings.
“We could compete with other companies on price, quality and after-sales service, but we couldn’t compete with the government. The Muldoon tax decimated the whole industry.”
Knocked down but not out, on a trip to the UK in 1980 Warnock visited the third Personal Computer World Show with his nephew. Inspired by the potential, later that year he bought a new computer for $7,300, a considerable sum in those days.
The computer had a whopping 48k of memory and Richard Brown wrote a programme to accurately quote new sails, which hugely accelerated the process.
Higher efficiency became necessary – with the freeing up of import licensing under the 1984 Labour government there was considerably more competition from other sailmakers, not only the bigger overseas franchise brands, but small, local operators.
But Warnock had to gradually trim back staff numbers during the 1980s and early 1990s to suit the changing market. He relocated around 1993 by moving his loft to the National New Zealand Maritime Museum.
Following Team New Zealand winning the America’s Cup in 1995, rental rates in downtown Auckland soared and Auckland City Council eventually offered to buy out his lease.
So in 1997, Warnock sold off his retail shops and wound up Shore Sails. During those 42 years Shore Sails had made more than 35,000 yacht sails, including over 6,000 Sea Bird dinghy sails and over 1,000 Hartley 16 sails. Impressive numbers.
He’s had one personal price to pay: “I reckon I’ve crawled on my knees from Auckland to Wellington and back twice. My knees are buggered.”
But this story isn’t over, besides family, sailmaking and sailing, two other passions have featured in Warnock’s life – music and flying.
During the early 1950s, he played Hawaiian and steel guitar in dance bands, but when rock-and-roll arrived in the late 1950s dance bands became seriously uncool.
So Warnock joined Red Hewitt and the Buccaneers, one of the pioneer rock-and-roll bands in Auckland. But he found rock-and-roll hard on his hearing and after two years left the band shortly before it cut its first record.
Flying is Warnock’s other major passion and he started flying lessons in Tiger Moths and Piper Cubs in 1959 at the Auckland Aero Club, then a big grass paddock and now Auckland Airport.
He gained his private flying licence in 1960 and his commercial airline licence some years later. He also obtained his instructor’s licence and for many years was a senior instructor at the North Shore Aero Club and then chief instructor at the Otamatea Aero Club in Ruawai.
Around 1970 Warnock took two years away from Shore Sails to fly a DC3 “a wonderful airplane” for Fiji Airlines. In all, he’s clocked up in excess of 6,000 flying hours.
He lost his wife Rona 11 years ago and in 2013 remarried Janet (nee Speight), the widow of one of his old friends, Mike Garrett. Janet’s a well-known sailor in her own right and the couple take off every year for two months of solid cruising in Offshore. Warnock’s a life member of the Devonport Yacht Club.
Since 1997, Warnock’s made awnings, covers and sailing accessories in the double garage at his Glen Eden home. Many of his tethers and bosun’s chairs are sold through marine retail stores. He’s got a soft spot for classic yachts and built Rainbow’s new sails and Ariki’s covers.
The day of our interview I found Warnock sitting on the bench he made in 1956, hand-finishing the sails for a friend’s seven-metre yacht. Later, I persuaded him to dig out his old guitars, both New Zealandmade. Sadly, the neck on his steel-stringed 1950s Commodore has warped so badly it’s unplayable, but his Hawaiian guitar has survived well and only needs new strings and a tune-up.
Among classic yacht aficionados, Warnock’s a legend and at 84 he’s in great shape. Watching his gnarled fingers expertly finish a handsewn ring on the sails show the years of experience and little tricks necessary to put every stitch in exactly the right place.
My final question – when was he going to hang up his palm and needle? – was met with “I hope I don’t have to because I love it.”
Now there’s the sign of a well-chosen career. BNZ
LEFT TO RIGHT Frank Warnock in his double garage sail loft; his well-used palm and knife; sailing his P Class, and sailing his 4.2m T Class Ivy.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Offshore on the wind; Offshore under spinnaker; beginning a hand-sewn ring; the finished ring; in the cockpit of a Boeing 737.